Contained in all democratic constitutions are provisions reflecting the necessary compromises that were made to obtain agreement on these fundamental laws, and, one hopes, to allow them to work. Not surprisingly, these constitutional provisions are then used by those who emerge from the electoral process to further political ambitions ranging from the creation of a heaven on Earth to winning the next election.
The Canadian constitutional arrangements did not arrive as a reflection of the divine, around which we could all gather and give praise to those who were reasonably successful in its creation. It is neither perfect nor imperfect. It is, rather, a profane document around which the affairs of some tens of millions of diverse peoples with an enormous land mass at their disposal can sort out overlapping and conflicting issues affecting their daily lives.
Also not a surprise is that the profane is more in evidence when it’s used by those with whom we have disagreements. The circumstances of such use aren’t difficult to find, as they always relate to the four great compromises of our Constitution.
These are: one, the role and authority of the central government, and the 10 provinces and three territories, all of which are only partially sovereign; two, the role of language, religion, and culture in these constitutionally constructed spheres of authority and responsibility; three, and increasingly significant and important, increasing sovereignty of Indigenous peoples, largely through the action of the Canadian judiciary and the implementation of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples; and four, how differences are adjudicated and reconciled, or how the constitutional arrangements can be amended.
There is, of course, a fifth compromise, which, in shorthand, is the “notwithstanding clause.” This clause allows for action to be taken by either level of government — federal, provincial or territorial — on specified matters contrary to the provisions of the Charter of Right and Freedoms. There’s no reason to dismiss the idea that this clause would someday be used by Indigenous people, with their increasing sovereignty to safeguard decisions they might take.
In the decades since the Constitution Acts of 1867 and 1982 — and 1982’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms — were agreed upon, constant issues and controversies have arisen from these hammered-out compromises and provisions.
Many controversies involve Quebec and its special role, its image of itself, and its relationship with others within and without its borders. Today is no different.
Today, the issue concerns the decision of the Quebec government to seek legislative approval through Bill 96 to declare Quebec a “nation” — or, in French, nation — of French-speaking people. The legislation also seeks additional measures to promote and protect the French language.
Of course, there’s nothing new in this. The same ideas were evident in talks in 1867 and 1982, and were reflected in the results. Ever since, these matters have been under serious discussion, and there’s been little serious objection to Quebec’s efforts.
And, of course, there’s been little serious objection nationally to the federal government’s decision in 1969 to declare Canada a bilingual country. One province, New Brunswick, declared itself a bilingual province, and others, to one degree or another, have offered educational and other services in both languages.
Some controversy has been raised by the Quebec government’s efforts, not so much to protect and promote French, but rather to protect the language rights of minority groups, especially those speaking English. It’s fair to conclude that such controversy has more to do with future fears than with the existing reality. While Quebec promotes the use of French within its own sovereign jurisdiction, it does so within a country and continent that’s overwhelming English, and where Spanish is more than just a second language.
Shrill voices will be raised whenever there are efforts to change the relationship between French and English spoken by the people of Quebec, more so now, with the formal introduction of “nation” status. Often this is accentuated when the term “Québécois” is used, even though it’s only another term for all the people who live in the province, not just those who speak French. These are often confused as elements of progress on the road to separation. They are not necessarily so.
Some have ominously noted that Quebec hasn’t signed the constitutional deals of 1982. But, for the past two decades, there’s been a quietude on constitutional matters, evidence of the de facto acceptance of those arrangements to the point where they’re the norm. The evidence, of course, is that Quebec is using the notwithstanding clause of the Charter, which is part of the Constitution Act of 1982 to support the constitutionality of the changes sought in Bill 96.
As for using “nation” as a unique description of the province, that’s an issue with no significant value other than in the minds of some who consider it larger than it actually is. In his 2006 leadership campaign, Michael Ignatieff declared that the “future of Canada includes the recognition of Quebec and Aboriginals as nations in our Constitution.” Ignatieff’s subsequent political career was short-lived, but his observation about the use of the word “nation” has become an accepted norm in the affairs of Canada.
Today, Indigenous Services Canada recognizes 619 First Nations. All seek some measure of sovereignty in the management of their affairs.
Even the troubled people of Ontario have been wont to use the word “nation” — “Leaf Nation” and “Ford Nation,” for example — in an effort to improve both its hockey and its politics, with little success.
To give the issue its proper due in this age of the virus is to stress that political support for the ideas in Bill 96 has more to do with looming elections than much else. The Quebec government is having a good run in its battle against COVID-19, and would like something more in its list of achievements. In Ottawa, the Liberals, Conservatives, NDP, and Bloc Québécois all support what Quebec is about with Bill 96. Such unanimity is rare in Canadian politics, and probably reflects the ultimate meaninglessness of using the word “nation” to describe Quebec, or the other changes suggested by Bill 96.
However, while Quebec has arrived at a measure of comfort with the current constitutional arrangements even without formal acceptance, the same cannot be said for Indigenous people. There, the differences with their authority — or, if you like, sovereignty — over colonial-imposed reservation land, as well as historically or traditionally used land, is a matter that will continue to stretch our imaginations, as well as our constitutional documents.
Gar Pardy is retired from the foreign service, having served as ambassador to Nicaragua and Panama. His latest book, China in a Changing World, is available from online retailers and Books on Beechwood in Ottawa.
The views, opinions and positions expressed by all iPolitics columnists and contributors are the author’s alone. They do not inherently or expressly reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of iPolitics.